Whether you’re first or fifteenth on the cross country team, you run. Hard.
“Every single day I see everyone run until their lungs are on fire,” said Fernanda Yepez–Lopez, a senior at Walter Johnson, in Bethesda.
It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t been one of the top seven scoring members of the Wildcats team, which will be shooting for its fourth consecutive Maryland 4A title this fall. Yepez-Lopez and her teammates attend daily practices, do strenuous workouts several times each week and wear the same uniform.
A successful team needs that, and breeds that. More personalities means more fun in a sport where a lot of the conditioning is done at a conversational pace and friendships can develop over the course of all the miles. Who knows where hidden talent lies the first time a runner stands on the starting line, but more importantly, who knows what they will learn about themselves and their friends in the dayin, day-out life of a cross country runner.
Jacqueline Zito, who is starting her junior year, said that at another school she might be among the top seven runners on the team, and so would some of her friends.
“I don’t think we’d give (WJ) up for anything,” she said. “All the varsity girls are so supportive. And they’re so sweet; it’s not as though they are boastful. There’s a varsity and a JV team, but there’s a really cool family vibe going on.”
That means, like with older siblings, lessons come from more than just mom and dad, or in this case, coaches Tom Martin and Ashley St. Denis. And sometimes those lessons resonate more personally because they come from peers.
Victoria Pannullo remembered her first practice last year as a freshman. “We did the warm up and I was exhausted after that. Then we did a two-mile jog on the track. I was so tired. And it was incredibly hot. After that, I threw up. There was one girl, who I didn’t even know, and she came over to me and told me it was going to be alright and running will get easier.
“It was so miserable. I came home from that and said, ‘Do I even want to do cross country? That was so hard.’ But everything has been better since the first practice.”
One of sophomore Helena Abbott’s favorite cross-country memories is the entire team getting together to talk and do core exercises in a big circle after a workout.
“Immediately, everyone looks out for each other once you join the team,” she said.
Encouragement from a teammate convinced Pannullo to give the team a chance. She has gained the perspective that “you’ll have good days and bad days of running. And they are both important.”
She now relies on hard workouts to give her confidence in races by telling herself, “You finished that really hard workout; you can finish this race.”
Even on hot and humid race days, “you get through it,” Zito said, and walk away “knowing that you can do it even though it looks so difficult at the time.”
Yepez-Lopez and Zito have also both found that running helps them balance the stress of high school.
“Running really helps me channel out all the negative vibes,” Yepez-Lopez said. Zito pointed out that, “High school is full of pressure and social status and phones, but when you’re out running, that just goes away.”
There still is some competition, because when time matters, running reveals itself to be a true meritocracy. The politics of playing time are null and void. Zito often finished races last season within seconds of two other teammates. At some races, the order in which they finished would determine who would compete at an upcoming invitational. They raced hard against each other, but they also encouraged each other through the race and remained close friends regardless of their finishing order. Zito remembered a race when she thought she could not “move a step farther” and felt so grateful to hear her teammate’s voice beside her saying, “‘come on, we’ve got this.’”
Some girls on the team are striving for one of the top seven spots. For many others, it’s not realistic, at least this year.
Walter said, “the only person I’m racing against is myself and I’m pretty sure I can beat me.” She notes that many girls join the team “just for the love of running.” Abbott agreed that many of the girls on the team are motivated to run because “we really like the sport.” But they still set goals and run hard to attain them.
“We always go out and give it 110 percent,” Abbott said.
It means something when Yepez-Lopez sees every runner “putting (herself) on the line to achieve something.”
“Every time we run, I see everyone is struggling,” she said. “Everyone is pushing themselves. If you are not pushing yourself to the extent that everyone else is, you’re letting them down.”
Through the pain, the girls have fun and become close friends. “Even when we’re all tired, we still have enough energy to laugh together,” Yepez-Lopez said.
The success of Walter Johnson’s top runners is a source of pride and motivation for the entire team. Walter said that training with the top seven runners has inspired others on the team to believe that if “they work as hard they can be just as successful.”
“Even though it isn’t the JV team winning all the titles, we still feel a sense of pride since it’s still our runners going out there and winning. … I know it’s impacted me in this way.”
Pannullo said that the whole team contributes to the success of the fastest girls because, “Everyone on the team is trying to push the person in front of them to run faster.” And Zito agreed that, at the end of the season, it feels like “we all did it together.”
In an act that Walter described as “an amazing display of sportsmanship,” the two runners who consistently finished right behind the top seven girls last season and just missed qualifying to run at the regional meet organized the team to make posters for those racing at regionals. One of the girls who organized that effort, Emma Pannullo, was disappointed that she was not racing herself but still traveled to the race to cheer on the team.
Each of these girls plans to continue running after they leave Walter Johnson. Zito said that running helps her feel “stronger mentally and physically.” She hopes, even, that she can replicate “the wonderful bonds” forged with her teammates on the Walter Johnson cross-country team.